Sloane Stephens stepped on Court 18 armed with a packed racquet bag and streak of second-week Slam appearances. But Maria Kirilenko disarmed the 18th-seeded American with down-the-line strikes and showed Stephens the door, 6-2, 7-6 (6), in the first round.
Career paths of the former Wimbledon quarterfinalists had taken disparate directions. Stephens had reached at least the fourth round in six straight Grand Slam tournaments—the longest active streak on the WTA tour—while Kirilenko, recovering from a left knee injury, was searching for any success. She took the court with just one win in five matches this season.
Kirilenko came out with a clear game plan: Knife her slice serve into the corners, play deep to deny Stephens access to angles, take the first strike down the line, and follow any mid-court ball she saw to net. That bold approach paid off: Kirilenko served 85 percent and faced only two break points, while earning 13 break points on the Stephens serve.
Saving the first break point of the match with a slider serve to set up a smash, Kirilenko held for 2-1. Another smash gave Kirilenko double-break point in the sixth game. Stephens saved the first with an overhead, clutching her knee after the shot, but on the second, Kirilenko blocked a backhand volley into the corner. The ball looked like it might float long, but instead dotted the baseline as Kirilenko broke for 4-2.
That shot sparked a run of five straight games in which the 87th-ranked Russian looked more like the player who cracked the Top 10, reached the last eight of The Championships, and won the Olympic bronze medal in doubles two years ago. A sleepy Stephens, whose short-angled forehand can drag opponents off the court, could not create sharp angles and did not match the proactive tennis of her opponent. Kirilenko cracked a sharp return to break again, sealing the first set in 35 minutes.
Striking her forehand with more sting, Stephens coaxed a running forehand error to break for a 2-1 second-set lead. Stephens is one of the fastest women in the game but doesn't always assert her movement offensively, and she's prone to lapses when her mind drifts and her shots float. Both issues cost her in the eighth game as she squandered a 4-3, 30-0 lead. Kirilenko cracked a brilliant running forehand pass winner down the line to break for 4-all.
Credit Stephens for showing some fight as she fended off five match points—including a nervy fifth match point, when Kirilenko caught up to a drop volley, had an open expanse of court down the line, but knocked her cross-court reply wide—to force the tiebreaker. Stephens, who was 4-0 in tiebreakers this season, looked revived by the hard-fought hold as she surged to a 5-2 lead.
Drilling a backhand winner down the line, Stephens earned two set points at 6-4 and had a clear shot at a forehand sitter down the line. In a decision she's probably still ruing, Stephens went right back at Kirilenko, cross-court. The Russian held her ground and flicked a half-volley lob winner to save it. Shrieking in frustration, Stephens never recovered.
A slick swing volley winner erased the second set point and it was 6-all. Kirilenko closed the one hour, 39-minute match when Stephens' stab volley went wide. A couple of days after compatriots Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe won their first career titles on grass, Stephens' grass-season is over, while her search for a maiden title is ongoing.
Photos by Anita Aguilar.
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